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Sri Lanka To Portugal

Frank Robben - August 1993

I was going to be delayed in arriving in Portugal for the planned oceanographic research work. Fortunately, Larry Armi, in charge of the project, said they understood the difficulties and some delay would not be a serious problem. Still, though, that meant that the trip, some 5,500 nautical miles, would basically be a rushed delivery and not a leisurely cruise with time to explore the exotic and interesting places on the way through the Red Sea, the Suez canal and the Mediterranean. Thus I needed crew willing for this type of trip.

George, a sailing friend from San Francisco, and his girl friend planned to join me and Frank. A Sri Lankan fellow, Tuanie, a former boat builder and now businessman in Colombo who I had met, wished to come, and an inexperienced young German couple was interested. This would have been fine. However, unexpected family affairs prevented George from coming. He recommended an experienced friend, Jeff, I looked a bit for someone suitable locally, but at nearly the last minute I paid for Jeff's transportation and he came.

The situation was complicated because government regulations and bureaucracy made it very difficult for Tuanie, the Sri Lankan fellow, from coming. Over these problems I had a falling out with Windsor & Co., the yacht agents in Galle who were generally quite hospitable, when they tried to charge me an exorbitant sum to have Tuanie added to the crew. By then I had a number of local friends, and Captain Mohideen, the police officer at the port and in charge of immigration, arranged for the necessary papers at no additional charge through another agent. Most frustrating and time-consuming. Business in Sri Lanka can be terribly hampered by complex and unnecessary regulations and petty corruption.

There were 6 of us, Frank Ansak and myself, Jeff, Tuanie, and Hans and Birgit when we finally left on 22 April. It was hectic leaving (and had been for the previous two months), besides the normal difficulties there was a week of holidays for the Sinhalese New Year, and my plans to invite local friends on Kialoa for a party and a daysail were skipped. Not only would I be late to reach Portugal, the weather in the North Indian Ocean would begin to deteriorate soon. I felt like a slave to the boat. Even on our way out and and after the anchor was stowed, when we tried to raise the main-sail the slides attached to the mast became jammed where the spliced section was welded and we had to motor around in the harbor for more than an hour while I worked on the mast track from a bosun's chair. A bit of lubrication on the slides, which we had forgotten to do, along with a bit of filing, solved the problem.

It was good to leave and be at sea again. The intense experiences and culture of Sri Lanka which had enveloped me drifted away, my outlook as an American along with all my attachments returned, and the Sri Lankan experience assumed the place of an interlude, the same as the Tahitian, Hawaiian, Japanese and Mexican experiences.

There was no wind for the first day or so but then a light northerly breeze filled in and we sailed westward slowly under full sail, using a large genoa, with warm but not oppressive sea and air, bright stars during the moonless part of the night, and good food and companionship. We bypassed the Maldives although it was tempting to stop and spend a few days among the touted white sand beaches and beautiful coral reefs, swimming, diving and relaxing. One afternoon about a week out we spotted a low grey object in the water, looking perhaps like an overturned fishing boat, but when we investigated we discovered a whale carcass, partly devoured by sharks, and with a very pungent odor. We fished, catching only a couple of smaller tuna with dark and rather heavy flesh, until we went across an extensive, shallow area south of the Socotro islands, located in the Gulf of Aden, south of the Arabian Peninsula, which belong to Yemen. Here we hooked a number of excellent albacore tuna, a dorado or two, and several other excellent fish, looking something like an ono but more similar to a very tasty species known in Sri Lanka as seer. In one day we had a month's supply of fish in the freezer and pulled in the lines.

We arrived in Aden on 9 May after 18 days and a bit more than 2, 000 nautical miles. Aden is a former British refueling and naval port located on the southern coast of the recently reunited South and North Yemen, about 100 miles from the Strait of Bab al Mandab, the entrance to the Red Sea. Aden is an interesting and reasonably westernized city in the first Arab Muslim country I had visited. A local taxi driver, Omar, who specialized and enjoyed in taking care of visiting yachts and yachtsmen, both helped us and toured us around. He was an intelligent and pleasant older fellow with excellent knowledge of both his country and western countries. I found I quite liked him and enjoyed his company as a friend, and I would enjoy seeing him again someday.

In Aden we tightened the main rigging and discovered that the threads of the stainless steel rigging screws on the main shrouds had galled and partly seized, damaging them and making it very difficult to tighten and loosen them. Probably the culprit was the use of regular automotive type grease on the threads in Sri Lanka, as I could not then find the lanolin based grease I had been using. We had since located a bit left of this grease, and it took a couple of day's work simply to undo, clean and grease these screws without too much more damage. However, they cannot now be loosened and tightened again without considerable damage and will have to be replaced along with the lower shrouds, another large expense and depressing thought.

In Aden I found that my passport would expire in a few days. I had forgotten this while in Sri Lanka, where I had been at the American Embassy a couple of days before leaving and could have easily taken care of it. Now it became a priority problem and I had to make a trip to the American Embassy in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen and about 300 miles to the north. Since time was important and travel a bit slow, I arranged for a car and driver, which was much more expensive than I originally thought. However, crossing the mountans of Yemen, seeing their steep, sometimes magnificent and somewhat barren slopes, and the curious villages, the people and the terraced agriculture was quite an experience. They have only recently come out of an almost medieval, autocratic Islamic government and the culture of that time is still dominant although the autocratic authority and brutality has largely ended.

To a westerner the cultural status and treatment of women may be the most obvious and perhaps repugnant aspect of Muslim culture as practiced in the Arabian part of the world. In Aden one found a fair number of women on the streets, shopping and so on. A few were without veils, a smaller number in western dress, but the majority were clad in black from head to toe, sometimes with only their eyes showing, and sometimes with a black veil that completely covered the face

And it was hot in Aden as well. In the mountain country there were women in the fields working, and on the village streets, also heavily clad but generally in bright colors and the eyes showing. But in Sanaa there were almost no women on the streets, seemingly they are largely confined to their houses, and the few that were out were totally clad in heavy shapeless black clothing with the face generally completely covered by a heavy veil. And I was told that in other ways the subjugation of women is even more oppressive.

In contrast, many men were on the streets and in the shops, cafes and lounges, chatting, lounging and generally being sociable. It was not uncommon to see them walking along holding hands. Alcohol is forbidden, and apparently enforced in Sanaa, but many were chewing a leafy grass known as "cot", holding a large wad in the cheek as I remember farmers and farm workers in my home town would hold chewing tobacco. "Cot" apparently contains a mild form of narcotic, and the use had previously been highly controlled in the former communist dominated government of South Yemen, but not in the north. Now, with the reunification of the two regimes into the more capitalist style, western modeled democracy of North Yemen, the use of cot was rising rapidly in the former South Yemen.

In Sanaa the streets and sidewalks were quite dirty, crowded with plastic scrap, spittle and dog feces, and broken down cars and other equipment. The city is at considerable elevation and the surrounding landscape and hills are quite barren, like parts of New Mexico in the US. The stores were full of the latest Japanese musical electronics and automobile parts, and the streets fairly crowded with dirty but quite new Japanese vehicles, many 4-wheel drive. The architecture was a bit unusual and rather uniform in the case of the newer stores and smaller buildings. Sanaa looked superficially affluent, probably due to the combination of the recently installed relatively lenient democratic regime and the discovery of some new oil fields in the eastern portion. But one could feel the medieval culture, dominant only a short time ago.

The men were almost all in similar dress, a wrap-around skirt topped with a somewhat western style white shirt and a dark, generally a bit threadbare, western style suit jacket. The majority carried traditional curved daggers holstered in decorated leather sheaths and simply stuck in front of their bellies in heavy leather belts. The effect reminded me a bit of the pouches worn by many western tourists, except that rather than money and identification the Yemenese men give priority to a weapon. They walked with a swagger, demonstrating a male pride which said "don't tread on me", and did not pay much attention to me as a foreigner. Later, at the American Embassy, I sat next to an older Yemenite, a naturalized American citizen, who informed me that in Yemen you were "safe from robbery and mugging because everyone carried a gun and no one would dare to commit these crimes since they would be quickly killed". The NRA (the American National Rifle Association, American political promoters of the right of all citizens to carry weapons) may wish to study Yemenese culture!

After leaving the embassy with my new passport we visited the central part of Sanaa where I bought a book on Yemen, then left to return to Aden. My driver took a different and very scenic route, passing over a high mountain divide which came out to the south overlooking a deep canyon with much of the seemingly vertical walls covered with irrigated terraces. Interestingly, this road, well constructed, was a German gift, built by Germans, while the other road we took the previous day was built by the Chinese. It was also of good design and construction. At the suggestion of my driver we made a detour to visit Taiz, a picturesque mountain city and the second largest in Yemen, which also was the home town of my driver. It was tucked into steep mountain ravines with houses built high up on the sheer face of one mountain which almost seemed to overhang the city.

Back in Aden we completed tightening the rigging with the damaged rigging screws, and took on diesel fuel (at the lowest price I have seen, about US $ 0.60 per US gallon). Additionally, to my dismay, I discovered water in the aft fuel tank. The tube enclosing the propeller shaft, which passes though the tank, had developed a leak. Another expensive and difficult repair job that must be taken care of in the future! But not dangerous, we drained the tank of fuel and closed it off.

We departed Aden in the morning of 14 May, no wind, and motored through the night into the Red Sea, using radar and the GPS to navigate through a shortcut between Perim Island and the coast at the strait of Bab al Mandab. The following evening we anchored in a pleasant, deserted bay on the south of Zugar Island for a bit of swimming, snorkeling and relaxation. It was the first time since leaving the Cocos Keeling Islands that I had been in a clean, deserted bay rather than a dirty, crowded harbor. There was a wreck near the shore which we explored by snorkeling the next morning, finding a reasonable variety of tropical fish. Unfortunately the water was not particularly clear. We also worked at cleaning the hull of Kialoa, hoping to get a bit more speed for the reputedly slow and difficult leg up the Red Sea to Suez.

That evening, Sunday, we raised anchor with the anticipation of an easy, windless night under engine. However, before we were out of the bay the wind rose sharply, from the north where we were headed, reaching 25 knots on the anemometer. I decided as we were all tired I did not want to spend the night changing sails while beating into steep seas, so we returned and re-anchored. Perversely, of course, the wind died shortly after. The next morning we left early and that evening put into the Yemenese port of Hodeida, where I planned to top off the fuel tanks. Even though we had not used much fuel, there was not enough left to get us to Suez, where fuel was easily obtained, and I did not want to stop at Port Sudan, about half way, as I had heard that the official bureaucracy would mean a stop of several days, and also that fuel was rather expensive there.

Hodeida is the principal commercial port of Yemen, with no facilities to handle yachts, and we were a bit of an inconvenience. However, we obtained fuel the following day, albeit at three times the price in Aden, and some fresh provisions, also at a very high price. We left that evening and continued on our way.

The remainder of the trip up the Red Sea was reasonably uneventful, with generally lighter winds which were quite variable and required frequent sail changes, and often the use of the engine. However, on reaching the Gulf of Suez it was different. By radio contact with other cruising yachts I knew there had been strong headwinds in the Gulf, and many yachts were holed up either in the Egyptian port of Hurghada or at nearby anchorages waiting for a lull in the prevailing strong north westerlies. When we approached Hurghada and the beginning of the Gulf of Suez we had a headwind of about 20 knots; it was a bit uncomfortable as the seas are notoriously steep and rough in the Gulf; however, we were making reasonable progress and continued.

The Gulf of Suez is rather narrow, in maybe 6 hours one would cross and must tack again. All the ships passing through the Suez Canal must be avoided, further there are numerous both active and abandoned oil platforms, many not shown on the charts, We tacked upwind through the night, giving thanks for the radar and the GPS. By the next day the wind had further risen, maybe 25 knots, we were down to a #5 jib with double reefed main in the quite choppy seas, we were making very slow progress and I was exhausted. We put into Tor Harbor, located on the eastern shore, the Sinai Peninsula, for rest for the night. There were a couple of other yachts anchored in the harbor, the shore and town appeared dry and barren, and besides it was not legal to go ashore.

The following evening it seemed the wind had slackened and we prepared Kialoa with a single reef and #2 jib and raised anchor. However, not long after sunset the wind rose again and we had to successively change jibs and take another reef while dodging ships and oil platforms. Frank Ansak allowed that this was a part of the trip he enjoyed as it was not boring and required considerable skill and work. I did not mind that part, but I was plagued by the ever-present danger of accident or failure of some sort in the rough seas and dose quarters. Further, our progress was exceedingly slow, and after 24 hours when we again anchored for rest in the bay of Mersa Thelemet on the African side. We had only covered a crow's distance of some 70 nautical miles.

But that was the end of the difficult weather. The following day we left Mersa Thelemet prepared for more strong winds, but they soon abated and we motored most of the remainder of the distance to Suez, arriving the following morning.

The city of Suez is located at the southern entrance of the Suez canal, where one must carry out the formalities of entering Egypt and the transit of the canal. We remained at the moorings of the Suez Yacht Club for 4 days. The crew went off for one day to see Cairo and the nearby pyramids, and Hans and Birgit departed to return to Germany. We took on fuel and provisions, I explored the city a bit, interested in the shops, the people and the surroundings. There were the usual minor repairs on Kialoa, and Tuanie and I socialized with a gracious couple on an English yacht. Tuanie was not allowed to enter Egypt, even after we made a special appeal, because Sri Lankan citizens required a visa, which had not been possible to get in Aden. He was confined to the ship and the yacht dub, but we did manage to bribe the guard to let him to go to dinner once with us.

We used the "Prince of the Red Sea" as an agent to clear the paperwork, for a fee which while noticeable was not exorbitant, and set off on 3 June for the two day trip through the canal. One anchors midway, and another pilot takes you through the second half. No mishaps except a scrape on the hull from an army launch. The pilots were not too bad, and the tips to them amounted to about $ 30 each. I chose not to go through Egyptian formalities again in Port Said, the Mediterranean end of the canal, and we simply continued out into the Med and its uncertain weather.

The first night out the wind rose to more than 30 knots, and of course it was a headwind. One can get tired of sail changes and reefing at night on Kialoa, and now we were also down to 4 crew. After that night we had only light or non-existent wind, and I began to worry we would run out of fuel (we used the engine when our speed dropped below 3 knots) before reaching Malta. However, there finally developed a pleasant northeasterly, giving us a broad reach which lasted for more than 24 hours and almost carried us to Malta. We arrived with less than 20 gallons of diesel remaining.

Malta was a pleasant surprise and Valleta, the capital, is a very substantial city. The older heavily fortified portion was built by the Knights during the Middle Ages, for defense against Suliman the Turk, and was a new city, designed and built from scratch. It was the first place of substantial western civilization I had seen in more than a year. Lots of yachts were in the harbor, some quite grand, many tourists and all that went with that, and the islands were larger and more extensive than I had imagined and had an interesting history. The city and buildings were of solid construction, there seemed to be a reasonable amount of industry (although they apparently depended quite a bit on tourism), and it was a picturesque place. We also spent some pleasant time with an older English couple on the boat next to us, and with an American couple from San Francisco who had sailed around the world and were on their way home. However, as usual, we had to rush on, we stayed 3 days, filled the tanks with diesel and, because of the uncertain winds, also filled the 4 collapsible deck-stored tanks with diesel.

The last leg of the trip was also slow, with headwinds, not particularly strong but variable and frustrating. As we approached the Straits of Gibraltar I feared the worst for the weather, but instead we had no wind and calm seas, and even a favorable tide. The Straits and the Rock of Gibraltar are impressive views, you can easily see across the straits to Africa, and the traffic is fairly heavy. We motored through the straits and the remainder of the way to our destination at Vilamoura, Portugal, arriving 26 June. A bit boring, perhaps, but I was happy to arrive and have no further mishaps.

The entire trip from Galle required 65 days to cover 5,500 nautical miles. I had originally estimated about 50 days and had thought that would be slow.

Copyright 1996 by Frank Robben